Fitness Training Benefits

Exercise and Spiritual Health: A Body & Soul Approach to Fitness

National Academy of Sports Medicine
National Academy of Sports Medicine
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By Sari Harrar

As fitness professionals, we know how to assess and help our clients physically. We often guide them nutritionally. And we even have motivational tools to help them mentally. But could there be a key ingredient we’re not calling into play?

Bringing spirituality into the realm of fitness is a growing trend. Your clients may be wondering about this new dimension as it pops up in exercise classes at places of worship; in fitness books, videos, and CDs (like Fit for God and “Jewish Aerobics”); and in news stories. Recent headlines have featured the NBA’s pregame chapel services for players; the Dalai Lama’s morning routine of prayer, yoga-like moves, and walking; and even the “Losing to Live” program that’s helped members at one Virginia church lose more than 12,000 collective pounds since 2007.

Why bring these two worlds together? Tanya Colucci, MS, LMT, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, a wellness-and-fitness presenter and certified yoga teacher who’s immersed herself in spiritual training in the United States and India since 2008, believes, “We are all sacred beings—sometimes we lose track of that. When you remember it, everything deepens.” For many clients, that includes motivation.

Understanding the Boost

There are lots of factors that can motivate a client to follow a fitness program. Spirituality can be part of that mix. In fact, for some clients, it can be a particularly strong motivation. A Gallup poll found that compared to nonreligious people, those who describe themselves as “very religious” are 10% more likely to exercise regularly. Here are some possible reasons why.

Fitness as a responsibility. People with strong faith often see taking care of their body as a response to the gift of life. “My body is on loan to me, and it’s my responsibility to eat well, practice stress management, and stay active—to affirm the gift,” says Scott Meltzer, rabbi of Ohr Shalom Synagogue in San Diego. “If I miss running for a couple of days in a row—if I get a little too relaxed or lazy about it—one thought that gets me back out there is that I have a responsibility to do this. I don’t wait for exercise to feel good.”

Fitness as preparation for service. If a client’s beliefs include a call to serve others, they may view fitness as a way to get equipped. The better health they’re in, the better they can give back. “Being physically fit helps us fulfill spiritual callings—building homes for the poor, raising money for charity, or being a good parent,” says Dave Scott, NASM-CPT, CES, who is also the pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship in Chino, Calif.

Faith as a source of strength. Some rely on their faith to bring them through difficult times. And whether you’re training an athlete with extreme goals, a client coming back from an injury, or a complete newcomer to exercise, following a fitness program faithfully may be a challenge.

The discipline connection. Getting healthier and more disciplined in one area, like spiritual study, can spark improvements in other areas of life—like taking care of your body. “I see that all the time,” Scott says.

What It Means for You

Spirituality may matter to some clients—and there are sensitive ways to broach the subject. (See “Is Your Client Spiritual?” below.) If you discover it is a priority in a client’s life, you’ve just made a new connection, and you can harness its energy through some of the following strategies. But even if your clients don’t define themselves as particularly spiritual, these powerful elements can offer universal training benefits.

Peace. When clients come to a session, they bring more than their body with them. “Life is tough, and people come in with their ‘stuff,’ ” Scott says. “But I can benefit them more by looking at the whole person when they walk through the door, rather than rushing into the routine.”

Consider how everything from your greeting to your training setting can contribute to a client’s sense of stress relief and peace. You might decide to incorporate some deep-breathing exercises into the mix—or change the program’s pace. Or maybe you’ll decide to take more sessions outside. Many people find a spiritual connection within nature. In any case, according to researchers at the University of Essex, exercising in a natural setting boosts feelings of well-being.

Awareness. Part of the appeal of meditation and prayer is its power to bring you into the moment, no matter where your mind (and worries) want to wander. To help clients feel more connected and “present” in their own bodies, begin sessions with progressive muscle relaxation. Starting with the feet and moving upward, tense each body part as you and your client inhale, and release tension as you exhale.

If you’ve never taken a formal yoga or meditation class (for personal benefit or training), now might be the time, Colucci suggests. “Have a first-hand experience that you can share with clients.”

Greater purpose. Spirituality thrives on the concept that there is a greater purpose to our lives than surviving the morning commute and remembering to pick up the milk and bread. In the fitness world, clients can also benefit from setting deeper goals.

“Exercising just to flex your muscles in the mirror is pretty boring,” Scott says. “I encourage my fitness clients to set bigger goals, whether it’s raising funds through a charity event or getting in shape so you can play with your kids. These goals often help the person—and others too.”

Ritual. Daily devotion is a key part of spirituality for many people. The same principle can apply to fitness, to stay on track. Encourage clients to make some kind of workout or activity as close to a daily thing as possible. “I’ve gained a few pounds recently and haven’t been as active as I’d like,” Meltzer says. “Today I just put a sticky note on the bathroom mirror to remind me. It says, ‘Every day.’ That’s how it should be.”

Many trainers find that providing clients with logs can help make exercise a daily habit. You can also help motivate clients by connecting with them as much as possible through social media (daily Facebook posts or tweets). And use email or texts to check in personally.

Community. Faith often comes alive when there is an element of community. You can spark fitness in a similar way. “We had a 28-day weight-loss challenge within our boot-camp team, and everyone really applauded each person’s efforts, no matter how large or small,” Scott says.

More ways to build greater community within your fitness groups and training center:

  • Organize a charity event.
  • Create an online community.
  • Post a bulletin board where you can share goals reached, lives changed.
  • Host special events from time to time—a New Year’s kickoff party, a group trip to a sporting event, whatever will connect your clients in new ways.

Scott sees the connection in the way members support and encourage each other both in his church and in his training groups. “It’s awesome, really powerful,” he says. And it may be just the sort of energy that can take a good training program to the next level for clients.


Dave Scott /// Pastor of Fitness

Scott, a former high school wrestler and football player, became a pastor right out of college. At age 45, he felt out of shape, so he challenged a group of friends to train for an ambitious, one-day hike of Mount Whitney in California—the highest peak in the continental United States.

“The eight months of training for the 21-mile hike changed my life,” says Scott, now 50. “I became an NASM Certified Personal Trainer and worked part-time for two years as a gym trainer.” He discovered, after holding a free boot-camp class at his church, that his true fitness calling is working with groups. Scott now holds classes through his business, Fit2Serve (, and he feels that his pastoral training and fitness training combine to help him offer total-life benefits.


Tanya Colucci /// Training with Spirit

Seven years ago, back pain sidelined Colucci for no apparent reason—and taught her to see her body’s signals as a doorway to spiritual growth. “Through physical th

erapy, yoga, and meditation, I realized the pain was due to my high stress level. I was driving myself to do what I thought I should be doing, rather than what I was really supposed to be doing,” she says. “It was a great personal awakening.”

She delved into yoga, spiritual disciplines, meditation, Reiki, and myofascial release. Colucci, 35, now offers clients a multidisciplinary approach to fitness as a holistic intuitive movement healer at Transform in Takoma Park, Md.


Scott Meltzer /// Devoted to Exercise

A sprinter in high school, Meltzer now leads a synagogue located three blocks from San Diego’s Balboa Park—the starting line for many races and runs. “We’ll open the synagogue before a race—there’s better parking, better bathrooms, coffee and bagels, and other runners,” he says. “It’s a lot of fun. We also get a group together every year for the Thanksgiving Day United Run for the Hungry and other charity runs.”

Devotion is key to his fitness philosophy. “When I go on a long run in the hills, it’s a really amazing experience—you feel at one with the universe, at peace,” Meltzer, 44, says. “But that’s not why I run or why I pray. It’s my sacred obligation that makes both a regular practice—even when it’s just a few minutes of running on the treadmill.”

The Author

National Academy of Sports Medicine

National Academy of Sports Medicine

Since 1987 the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) has been the global leader in delivering evidence-based certifications and advanced specializations to health and fitness professionals. Our products and services are scientifically and clinically proven. They are revered and utilized by leading brands and programs around the world and have launched thousands of successful careers.


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